Barack Obama
Barack Obama. Photo by Reuters
Text size

Libya's ruler Col. Muammar Gadhafi has revealed the weakness of President Barack Obama. The leader of the superpower called upon Gadhafi to leave - and Gadhafi wasn't scared. The whole world saw how very easy it is to preach democracy and liberty from afar, and how much harder it is to back up the verbiage with military action against a cruel tyrant who slaughters his own citizens.

Gadhafi's determination has tipped the balance, at least for the present, in the struggle for survival by rulers of Arab countries against their peoples in revolt. Saudi Arabia has followed in his footsteps, and has sent its army to Bahrain to rescue the regime of the Sunni minority from the wrath of the Shi'ite majority. The Americans demanded reforms and openness in Bahrain, and the Saudis have in effect occupied the neighboring island, which is linked by a bridge to their country.

The harsh and cruel Gadhafi has always tested the normal limits of the behavior of states and leaders. He has already shown it is possible to survive for years in power under sanctions, threats and even American bombardment. However, the Middle East is full of leaders and governments who have heard demands and dictates from Obama and have simply said, "We've heard you" - and continued doing as they liked unscathed.

During the past two years, for example, Iran has advanced its nuclear program and paid no heed either to Obama's lures or his warnings. For its part, Israel slowed down settlement expansion for a while, because the president demanded it, but then went back to building in the territories. Even Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said "No" to Obama, when the president suggested he waive a condemnation of Israel at the United Nations in exchange for a package of benefits and incentives. Fifty minutes on the telephone, and Abbas didn't budge.

Obama always goes with the strong and kicks the weak. When the opposition demonstrations in Iran were brutally suppressed after the falsification of the presidential election results in 2009, Obama disassociated himself from the demonstrators and in effect supported President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He apparently assessed the regime would survive and hoped his neutrality would lead to a thaw in the relations between the United States and Iran. But the Iranians interpreted Obama's stance as weakness and showed no interest in the dialogue he offered them.

In Egypt the masses went out to demonstrate in the streets, and the moment Hosni Mubarak was weakened and the army disassociated itself from him, Obama wiped out 30 years of alliance and cooperation. When it emerged the army had taken control of Egypt, the U.S. president supported the generals. Mubarak and the deposed president of Tunisia hesitated to open fire on the demonstrators and were dethroned. Gadhafi fought back and his rule has been saved. For now.

Cart before the horse

Obama's successful race for the presidency, centered on the sweeping promise of "change," aroused tremendous expectations. In an instance of putting the cart before the horse, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize without having done anything. His supporters say that due to the very fact of his presence and the positions he has articulated, he has encouraged supporters of democracy in the Arab world and has lowered the flames in the Middle East. Their claim is not entirely unfounded. Even before the street revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, the Obama administration had advanced Southern Sudan toward independence. The borders between Israel and its neighbors have been a lot quieter since he took office than they were during the terms of his predecessors Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Nevertheless, a far more activist foreign policy was expected of Obama. Both those who admire him and those who do not assessed he would force Israel to quit the territories and would establish a Palestinian state in them. And, indeed, Obama went further than his predecessors and declared that the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a national interest of the United States. Right after his inauguration, he appointed George Mitchell, who successfully mediated in Northern Ireland, as special envoy to the Middle East.

Here in the Middle East, it was immediately realized that Mitchell was of no value, although he continued to be hosted for futile discussions. He has not been seen for some time now in Jerusalem and Ramallah, even though formally he still holds the envoy position. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is working with Washington now through Mitchell's rival, Dennis Ross.

When he took office, Netanyahu assessed that Obama would try to depose him. His fear of the president led Netanyahu to impose a settlement freeze at the end of 2009. The fear evaporated when the Republicans regained a majority in the House of Representatives last November and positioned themselves as a shield against administration pressure on Israel. The stance of the House, whose Democratic leaders also offered their support of Jerusalem, pushed Obama to impose a veto on the UN Security Council resolution condemning the settlements - contrary to his administration's position. But recently, when a veteran right-winger asked Netanyahu why he will present a diplomatic plan in the near future, the prime minister explained: "Obama will be elected for a second term."

Since his party's defeat in the congressional elections, Obama has preferred to reach agreements with the Republicans and to rule from the center. His energies are already focused on his campaign for re-election, and at a time like that one doesn't wrangle with powerful sectors and lobbies, like supporters of Israel. It seems he is waiting for the diplomatic battle expected this summer in advance of the Palestinian declaration of independence. At that time Obama will have an opportunity to apply pressure to Netanyahu and Abbas - both will be in need of his support. It is doubtful he will take advantage of this opportunity at the start of his election year. But even if Obama makes public a plan for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, the sides will likely reject it.

And until summer arrives, Obama will have to deal with the waves of revolt in the Middle East and Netanyahu's insistence upon keeping control of the West Bank. "We don't want Iran 14 miles off our coast, and that's not going to happen," a Saudi official told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius in no uncertain terms. This is how the Saudis are justifying the dispatch of their army to Bahrain - and this is exactly how Netanyahu is explaining his demand to maintain control of the Jordan Valley and the ridges overlooking it, where the settlement of Itamar is situated.